The hunters of Dorset
Dom Greves looks at a collection of Dorset flora and fauna with one thing in common: they prey on others
Published in May ’13
Tennyson’s In memoriam A A H, for the poet’s friend Arthur Hallam, contains the line: ‘Tho’ nature, red in tooth and claw’, which is often cited without the ‘Tho’ as a shoulder-shrugging, ‘Oh well, that’s nature for you’ description of the lives of animals which kill others to live.
Dorset has its fair share of predators, from the rarely seen coastal cetaceans (Dorset is an occasional home to four dolphin species and a couple of porpoises), to invertebrates and even insectivorous plants. It is home to a wide variety of raptors, from visiting osprey to native kestrels, buzzards, peregrine falcons and owls and also to a number of predatory mammals… as well as mammalian prey species, one of which seems to be on almost everyone’s menu. A vole is usually visually distinguished from a shrew or a mouse owing to its small eyes, short tail, small ears and rounded snout. Its ability to breed under snow and from an early age (28 days for females, 40 days for males) means it is widely distributed and probably the least threatened mammal species in Europe… which is just as well as it forms the backbone of many predators’ diets!
One of these is the UK’s, and thus Dorset’s, only native venomous snake: the adder. It survives by eating eat small rodents, such as the short-tailed vole, but will also eat lizards, frogs and newts, and adders have been seen taking young from the nests of ground-nesting birds. When hunting, adders strike swiftly at the prey, injecting a lethal dose of venom. They then wait until the prey dies before starting the often-lengthy swallowing process. Like all snakes, adders eat their prey whole and are able to swallow items much larger than the width of their head. Their digestive fluid will digest the flesh and bones of their prey leaving often only the hair and teeth of their victims intact.
Amphibians are not only exclusively carnivorous, but they feed only upon living prey rather than carrion. Most have large, wide mouths to consume large animals. Frogs and toads can eat large animals such as mice, birds, small reptiles and small snakes (which would satisfy their energy requirements for a long time), but typically their diet will consist of insects, snails, slugs and spiders. Dorset has six of seven amphibian and all six reptilian British native species within its bounds.
Dorset has a wide variety of raptors – eleven species have been recorded at Durlston Country Park alone. The two most commonly seen are buzzards and kestrels. Although buzzards will eat carrion, they are largely hunters, eating rabbit, pheasant, snakes and lizards, small and medium sized mammals and even earthworms and insects. By far the most important food for kestrels is our unfortunate if fecund friend the vole. Kestrels need to eat four to eight voles a day, depending on the time of the year and the amount of energy-consuming hover-hunting they do. They have a habit of catching several voles in succession and saving some for later. The stored food is usually eaten the same day just before dusk. This reduces the risk that the bird would have to go to roost on an empty stomach.
Although usually on the receiving end of predation from everything from ospreys to kingfishers, fish are not always the hunted. Pike will prey on pretty much anything they can swallow – other fish, ducklings, even other pike. One greedy young pike famously choked to death trying to swallow a 3lb carp, which got stuck in its throat.
Insects form a huge part of the diet of birds, but they also have some of the most formidable predator species. From the humble yellow dung fly – which lives on cow pats and feeds on blowflies, nectar and dung, to those most elegant of hunters, the dragonflies, insect hunters come in all shapes and sizes, winged or not.
Spiders are the quintessential hunters, whether they sneak up in the wild, camouflage themselves in flowerheads, flat on the surface of water or stand immobile just off the edge of a web.
Less nimble, certainly, but no less deadly to those who fall within its clutches is the insectivorous plant; Dorset has populations of bladderworts, butterworts and sundews, and even some alien pitcher plants.
At the top of their respective food chains are the fox and the otter. Loathed and loved in equal measure, the red fox is truly omnivorous, but 95% of an average rural fox’s diet consists of meat (hunted or scavenged), mainly rabbits, rats, birds and small mammals. Insects and worms may constitute another 4% and the remaining 1% may consist of fruit, rising in the summer. So successfully omnivorous is the fox – as chicken owners may well testify – that one wildlife charity, which has rescued 7500 foxes in 21 years, says it has never yet found an adult fox suffering from starvation.
Dorset’s rivers are starting to play host to more otters as they get cleaner. Otters are normally nocturnal hunters, but one family in Blandford is very much visible, not only in daylight, but also in town, so there’s no hiding place for fish.
All in all, if you are a species which is preyed upon, there is quite a lot to be frightened of in Dorset… particularly if you are a vole.